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Judge lifts U.S. oversight of City of Pittsburgh police

Saturday, September 14, 2002

By Torsten Ove, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

A federal judge yesterday lifted most of the federal oversight imposed on the Pittsburgh police force under a 1997 consent decree.

U.S. District Judge Robert Cindrich granted a joint motion filed by the city and the U.S. Justice Department to terminate the decree except for provisions governing the Office of Municipal Investigations, which investigates allegations of police misconduct.

That office will continue to be monitored by James D. Ginger, a court-appointed auditor, who will conduct more comprehensive reviews of OMI to address problems of staffing and training in an effort reduce a backlog of cases by Feb. 28, 2003.

The judge approved the proposal after listening to half a day of testimony from parties for and against the agreement.

The city signed the decree in April 1997 after Justice Department attorneys said they could prove a "pattern and practice" of police misconduct. The city denied those allegations and still does, but it agreed to enter into the decree.

The city has been in compliance with the decree as it pertains to police operations, but OMI remains a sticking point mostly because of its backlog of cases.

Those in favor of lifting the decree yesterday included Mayor Tom Murphy and Police Chief Robert W. McNeilly Jr., who both said the police force has become one of the most progressive in the country.

"We strongly felt that the police department ought to be rewarded for its effort," Murphy said when asked about negotiations with the Justice Department to end the decree. "In this case, the police had done an outstanding job. On the other hand, we recognized that OMI needed more work."

American Civil Liberties Union Executive Director Witold Walczak and NAACP head Tim Stevens both said the city should not be rewarded so long as OMI remains out of compliance.

But the judge said the police force under McNeilly has put programs in place, such as its early-warning system to spot problem officers, that show it is committed to continuing reforms mandated by the decree even after the oversight is removed.

"I think you deserve to be commended," Cindrich said.

"We're pleased," McNeilly said of the ruling. "We've demonstrated that we are in compliance."

McNeilly said the monitoring of officers and other measures will continue without the decree. In specific, he said the Police Bureau will keep tracking the use of force by officers, searches and seizures and traffic stops.

The ACLU and 17 other civil rights groups who opposed lifting the decree weren't thrilled, but they seemed satisfied that OMI will be supervised more closely and that Cindrich recognized the office must work efficiently if the public is to have faith in the Police Bureau.

One of the ACLU's chief demands was that OMI be removed from supervision by the city Law Department and placed under the independent oversight of a special master.

Walczak, Stevens and others said having city lawyers in charge of OMI is a conflict of interest because those lawyers also have to defend the city in misconduct cases, although Fraternal Order of Police attorney Bryan Campbell actually represents the officers in court.

The agreement does not remove oversight from the Law Department, but it does give Ginger more direct oversight. Ginger said he and the new head of OMI, Police Cmdr. William Valenta, have agreed that Ginger will begin "more intrusive" audits of the agency. Instead of just looking at final results, such as cases cleared, Ginger will monitor OMI procedures in what he called a "process audit."

Under the agreement, the city has acknowledged OMI's shortcomings and promised to comply with a series of requirements. Among them:

*The office must clear its existing backlog of cases open longer than 120 days by Feb. 28. The original deadline was Dec. 31, but Ginger recommended pushing the date back so that the office won't be forced to rush investigations. As of this week, 246 cases were older than 120 days.

*The city must not allow another backlog to develop. After Feb. 28, the total number of cases open more than 120 days cannot exceed 5 percent of the total caseload.

*OMI will continue to maintain a computerized database to track the status of misconduct complaints and investigations.

*The city will make sure each closed OMI case file contains all the necessary information for Ginger to determine if the agency is in compliance with the decree.

*The city will provide a monthly report to Ginger and the Justice Department detailing the status of the backlogged cases, new cases and closed cases and the number of staffers handling them.

Ginger has consistently criticized OMI in his quarterly reports, saying the agency has failed to investigate complaints aggressively, improperly cleared some officers, used poor investigative techniques and failed to train some staff members.

In his latest report, he repeated those concerns and raised others, including what he said is the failure of OMI to interview witnesses of incidents and police supervisors at scenes.

Torsten Ove can be reached at tove@post-gazette.com or 412-263-2620.

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